Soccer Popularity Study By Country

Soccer is the most popular sport in the whole wide world, period! In all top 10 lists of the world’s most popular sports, the number one ranked is soccer with 3.5 billion estimated fans. Barely followed by cricket and hockey with 2.5 and 2 billion fans respectively.

The FIFA World Cup held every four years has a massive TV audience. According to stats 3.5 billion people tuned in to watch the last 2018 edition. This figure is only surpassed by the Olympic Games in some editions. But no other single sports competition comes close in attendance to the World Cup.

Soccer is a sport that involves and has given a purpose to a large number of people around the world. According to a 2006 FIFA count, there are 265 million footballers around the world, and 270 million if we include officials and referees.

Actually, over 40% of people aged 16 or older in major population centers across the globe claim to be interested in Football, a figure beyond that of any other sport.  But…

Why Is Soccer So Popular?

The reason for soccer’s popularity worldwide is something that has puzzled many throughout history. If you are a hardcore, loyal, 100% committed soccer fan; you might have a fairly clear idea; at least instinctively: the feeling of glory that comes with scoring a goal has no comparison.

And I agree; I’d even add that few things in life can bring such joy as simply kicking a ball around with your feet. It’s almost magic!

But if we sit quietly and reflect on it for a moment–as I am right now– there are at least a few reasons that pop into mind. The first of them being:

Inclusiveness

Football is played by people of all classes and social backgrounds—men as well as women—ranging from the highly-paid stars of the Premier League to the Sunday morning park footballers or the neighborhood kids going for a kick-about at the local court.

Along with its inclusiveness, soccer has fairly low physical requirements compared to other sports. For instance, unless you are highly skilled, it’s very difficult to thrive in sports like basketball when you don’t have the proper height.

The average basketball player is 6ft 7in. For other sports like NFL players, it’s 6ft 2in, but you also have to be considerably well-built to stand a chance in a match.

Even other no-contact sports like tennis demand an above-than-average height. Raphael Nadal and Roger Federer, the best tennis players of our time, are both 6.1 ft tall. Whereas in soccer, the average height is 5ft 11in.

As if that weren’t enough, arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi,  is as short as 5ft 7in! “That’s a one-in-a-million exception,” you might say. But if you know a little about football, you might have noticed players of all heights in virtually every position.

Taking that into account, it’s understandable that people choose to get into soccer over other more physically demanding sports.

Another contributing factor to the massive popularity of soccer is:

Affordability

Soccer’s popularity in the world is no doubt influenced by the low costs of its training and practice that allow anyone to do it. Which does not mean that everyone is good at it, but it lets people from all parts of the world be part of the passion.

No matter where you’re reading this from, at some point in your life, you’ve probably seen a bunch of kids playing soccer with a makeshift ball made of sticky tape, paper, cardboard, or fabric. I mean, it doesn’t even have to be round. Even I used to play with a can and two stones to mark the goal with my buddies at school.

And that’s exactly what I mean; Football is a sport that gives you so much with so little.

And If all that doesn’t account for soccer’s popularity worldwide in your mind, perhaps taking a quick look at history will convince you of why soccer is so massively followed around the world.

History

FIFA recognizes that the earliest-recorded form of Football happened about 2000 years ago in ancient China. It went by the name of “Cuju,” and it was played with a rudimentary leather, feather-filled ball. However, Football as you know it was created in England, and its rules were established in 1863, which preceded the creation of the most ancient Football tournament to date, “The FA Cup.”

Long story short, the British Empire managed to settle 1/4th of the world’s territory by 1922—impressive, I know—and records say wherever the British went, they took Football with them.

After the decline of the empire, the British sure left, but Football remained embedded as part of the local culture. So it’s hardly surprising that Football has won the popularity race against other sports.

Defining "Popular"

We all have our favorite sports. You might be passionate about basketball, baseball, cricket, or tennis, perhaps. But, just to put some extra emphasis on the obvious, soccer is the most popular sport out there. The thing is, what do we mean by popular, exactly? Is it the most-watched, the most played, or the sport with the most passionate fans?

Well, research scientists agree that the farthest criteria to measure a sport’s popularity is the number of fans. With that in mind…

Why Is Soccer So Popular?

In this guide, you will learn what countries soccer is most popular and why. You will also discover the reason that soccer failed to dominate the American market. And we will answer the most commonly asked questions around soccer, all filled with the latest stats and facts.

But enough preamble! I know you’re dying to know the numbers, the figures, the percentages. So to lay it all out for you, Neilsen sports,  a global sports news network, carried out a study in 2018 on soccer popularity by determining what percentage of the population alleged to be interested in “the beautiful game.”

Forget about predictions and everything you know about soccer; the top 5 countries are nothing short of unpredictable, to say the least.

Here they are:

Location

Population “Interested” or “Very Interested” in Soccer

United Arab Emirates

80%

Thailand

78%

Chile

75%

Portugal 

75%

Turkey

75%

Mexico

73%

Spain

70%

South Africa

70%

Italy

67%

Poland

67%

South Korea

67%

Malaysia

65%

Brazil

60%

Germany

60%

Hungary

54%

Russia

52%

The U.K.

51%

France

50%

Czech Republic

50%

Singapore

49%

Courtesy of Nielsen Sports

The Top 4

For the sake of suspense, we will talk about the top 4 countries where soccer is most popular in ascending order. Let’s jump right in:

#4 Portugal

It’s hardly a surprise to see Portugal 4th on the ranking as this small European country has always been present in the most important soccer events.

Portugal has produced some of the best players in football history. They have made the game a joy to watch and earned millions of fans all over the world. Regardless of whether you know much about football, you’ve probably heard some of these names.

  • Luis Figo
  • Ricardo Quaresma
  • Bruno Fernandez
  • Cristiano Ronaldo

The last one is considered by many as the best player of all time. Not short of merit, of course, as he is the most scoring player in both the EUFA Champions League and Real Madrid’s history. 

But most importantly, he became an undoubtedly national pride after leading Portugal’s national team to victory for the first time in two of the most important tournaments in soccer, the EURO and the Nations League, in 2016 and 2020, respectively.

Soccer is a way of life in Portugal. It’s present everywhere you look, and it’s followed closely by men and women, young and old alike. It’s a passion that it’s regarded as highly as a religion, and it will probably continue this way as long as soccer exists.

#3 Chile

Football arrived at Chilean shores (as it did in many other countries) in the 19th century at the hands of English marines who dazzled locals with their passionate game. In 1895 the Chilean Federation of football was created.

Ever since Chilean soccer, history has been filled with bittersweet memories that nevertheless have forged a passion so great that it hasn’t been outstripped by any other sport.

The Chilean National teams have had some of their most glorious moments in the last couple of decades. They achieved bronze in the 2000 Olympic Games, as well as third place in the 2007 World Cup in both sub-20 and sub-17 categories. And they also became champions two years in a row of the Copa America, the biggest soccer tournament in Latin America, in 2015 and 2016, just to name a few.

As for World Cup participation, Chile has been to the World Cup nine times. Its most memorable one was in 1962 when they hosted the Cup and managed to seize 3rd place. And its last one was the 2014 edition in Brazil, where they got 9th place.

You should also know that the Chilean national soccer league “Campeonato APF PlanVital ” packs great heat and passion and is one of the top leagues in Latin America. Its two biggest teams are “Colo-Colo” and “Universidad de Chile.”

#3 Thailand

Most of us would be lying to say it’s not impressive or a little shocking to see Thailand 2nd in the ranking of Soccer World Popularity with a whopping 78 percent! Especially when considering its Pro League “Thai League 1” was founded as early as 25 years ago.

According to records, football arrived in Thailand in 1897, and the foundation of its ruling organism, “Football Association of Thailand,” happened shortly afterward in 1916. However, few would have expected “the beautiful sport” to flourish in popularity the way it did.

And I want to emphasize “in popularity” because even though “The War Elephants” (their national soccer team) has made its way to three ASEAN Football Championship finals—and won two of them—they have failed to be successful in soccer’s world stages.

However, they are remembered for being the last to represent Southeast Asia in the third round of South Asian qualifiers for the World Cup. An achievement that earned them the respect of their Asian counterparts and gave their fans a glimpse of hope for the future.

#1 United Arab Emirates

Building a lavish, skyscraper-filled, modern country from the ground up in the middle of the desert in just a few decades is an astonishing achievement the UAE is famous for all over the globe. And its transition from a modest country to an affluent society has certainly not neglected football.

Football is the single most played and watched sport in the UAE, followed by cricket horse racing. And this is perhaps the main reason Emiratis are investing more and more money in European football.

Abu Dhabi United Group purchased Manchester City Football Club in 2008, and their Sky Blue’s days have been filled with titles ever since. In only the past 10 years, the “Citizens” won the premier league 5 times, along with many other national and international titles.

Along these lines, UAE airlines are the biggest investors in shirt sponsorship in European football, with Fly Emirates and Etihad Airways in the lead. Putting their names on some of the biggest clubs in the world, such as Real Madrid, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain, and Arsenal.

Although money can’t buy passion, it can spur fans’ interest in a sport and help teams achieve success—as it did for Manchester City in the 2020-2021 UEFA Champions League, where they became runner-ups.

Investors know although their own national team has done as well as they’d like in international tournaments, soccer is a huge driving force in their country. And they are willing to invest generously to make soccer, both in Europe and in the UAE, as big as their skyscrapers.

Honorific Mentions

England

The home country of Football as we know it, England, is likely the biggest contributor to making “the beautiful game” the most heartfelt sport on earth. Almost ironically, though, history has not granted the kind of glory that many would believe England deserves—considering what it has done for it. 

Here are just a few facts that illustrate what I mean:

  • Soccer has had many variations throughout history, although its rules as we know them were officially established in London in 1863
  • The first governing body of Football, the FA (Football Association), was also created in 1863. And it remains the biggest regulating organism of soccer in England.
  • The oldest soccer tournament, the FA Cup (still played to this day), was inaugurated in November 1871
  • There are currently over 40.000 registered soccer clubs in England. Almost twice as many as Brazil, which interestingly enough, is almost 35 times larger and has a population nearly 4 times that of England.

In spite of this, England has only lifted the world cup once, in 1966. And its national team’s performances in this tournament have fallen short of expectations in its last editions. Something that stings deep in the hearts of English fans. 

However, and to the joy of millions of Britons, England accommodates the biggest, most prestigious soccer league in the world “The Premier League.” And due to massive financial investment, signing of the biggest names in the industry, and the appeal of its physical, fast-paced game style, it claims the throne as the biggest soccer stage in the world in terms of clubs.

Sure, The UK stands 14th on the ranking of world popularity, but it clearly is a statement of how numbers in popularity do not necessarily reflect the impact a country can have on the game as a whole.

Brazil

No ranking of soccer popularity worldwide would be complete without Brazil, home to the World Cup five-time Champion national team,” La Verdeamarela.” 

As if being the most winning World Cup country in the world wasn’t enough, Brazil also exports the most soccer players to professional leagues—a fact that hardly surprises considering how swamped the sport is with fast-dribbling, goal-scoring Brazilian players. 

People in Brazil eat, live, and breathe soccer, which is why it might come as a surprise to see it so low on this ranking. Nevertheless, there is little doubt about the significance and popularity of the beautiful sport in this country, especially to its citizens who dearly refer to Brazil as “The Country of Football.”

Football represents a way out from poverty to thousands of young players who dream of achieving glory and fame in the big stages of soccer in the world.

Because even though the “Campeonato Brasileiro Série A”—Brazil’s national soccer league—enjoys quite a lot of recognition and respect, it does not offer players as great opportunities as the more affluent soccer leagues such as the ones in Europe.

Football was far from being created in Brazil. However, it certainly has owned the sport on a global scale. And if there is something this country can be attributed to, it is turning soccer into a beautiful spectacle often referred to as “Joga Bonito.”

USA

The history of contemporary men’s soccer in the United States was marked by a painfully astonishing own goal sealing a loss against Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup qualifiers in 2018. Making for the first time the US didn’t qualify for the tournament in the last 30 years.

An outcome that, to many, was only a predictable result of the bad management and coaching men’s soccer had been under for the last decade.

On the bright side, there is a MASSIVE gap between men’s and women’s soccer in America. The USWNT’s have won the World Cup in 1991, 1999, 2015, and 2019! And it’s ranked as the #1 Women’s Soccer team in the world by FIFA.

The history of women’s soccer in America is filled with rampant success. And even though that has not been the case with men’s soccer, the MLS (Major League of Soccer) has slowly gained momentum due to increased investment and the signing of big names, making its way to the top 10 most-watched soccer leagues in the world.

While men’s soccer in America is not even close to that of Europe or Latin America, it has certainly closed the gap in recent years. Giving American soccer fans a lot to hope for in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

What countries have won the most world cups?

Country

Number of Trophies

Brazil

5

Germany

4

Italy

4

Argentina

2

France 

2

Uruguay

2

Spain

1

England

1

Why is football called soccer in the US?

After “mob football,” an earlier vicious version of soccer, had been played on and off in England for centuries, authorities decided it was time to regularize the sport.

However, the sport was played slightly differently depending on the place—as it was played more with the hands in some places and in others more with the feet—so it ended up being split into two sports called “Rugby Football” and “Association Football.”

And due to the particular habit of the upper class to give nicknames to things and people by putting an “er” in the end, association football ended up being called “assoccer” and later on simply soccer.

In short, in parts of the world where rugby football caught on more quickly, people ended up calling the beautiful sport ‘soccer.’ Because, well, football was already taken.

Why is soccer not the most popular sport in the US?

Not an easy question to answer, but there are a few contributing factors that might have placed soccer way under the “big three”: American football, basketball, and baseball.

The first of them is ‘ethnocentrism.’  We Americans love being the best at everything; We have the best basketball players in the world (winning 15 out 19 of the gold medals in the history of the Olympic games), the best NFL (and only) players in the world, and the top players in professional baseball.

It might just be that if we are not the best at a sport, we are just not interested in watching it.

Also, Americans love eccentrics; we like everything BIG. That’s why we have huge drinks, huge trucks, massive houses, and of course; HUGE players.

The average height of an NBA player is 6ft 7in; for NFL players, it’s 6ft 2in, and 6ft 1in for MLB players. Soccer players are just 5ft 11in on average! Perhaps that’s not big enough for America.

And the most significant one is money. TV networks make a load of money off of sports with commercial breaks. 

Take the NFL, for instance. With breaks at the end of the 1st and 3rd quarter, the two-minute warning at the end of the 2nd and 4th quarter, time outs, instant replays, game stoppage after punt return, and injury time outs, just to name some; the NFL generates huge profits for the industry.

On the other hand, soccer is just 90 minutes with a 15-minute break. Making soccer not as much of a money-maker to the industry as other sports.

What Are The Most Popular Soccer Teams In The World?

Based on their social media following, here are the top 10 most popular soccer teams in the world:

Ranking

Club

Country

Followers

1

Real Madrid

Spain

252.1 million

2

Barcelona

Spain

250.3 million

3

Manchester Utd.

England

142 million

4

Juventus

Italy

104.1 million

5

Chelsea

England

93.4 million

6

Liverpool

England

92.7 million

7

PSG

France

91 million

8

Bayern Munich

Germany

88.7 million

9

Manchester City

England

76 million

10

Arsenal

England

75.9 million

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James Cunningham
James Cunningham
James lives in Chicago with his wife and three daughters. Originally from the UK, soccer has allowed him to travel the world. Now a youth coach, he fully enjoys teaching others about the game that he loves so much. His favorite team is Manchester United.